You've probably tried everything, right? You've done all the different programs, you've watched all the motivational videos on Youtube, you've set goals for yourself, you follow Gym Memes on Facebook and you talk about working out all the time. But when it comes down to it, you can never actually do it. When it comes time for you to actually do any work, you still find that you're dragging yourself into the gym every time, and that means that you never really get done anything that you tell yourself you're going to. You tell yourself you'll eat clean (though that's a topic for another day), you tell yourself you're going to stay at the gym for an extra few sets, or that you're going to do an extra thirty minutes on the treadmill, you make plans to really change things, and then you find yourself in front of the television eating ice cream instead.
The problem boils down to the fact that there are two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is an inner motivation which arises from one's self: "people who are intrinsically motivated report being physically active because they truly enjoy it. Such involvement in an activity is associated with positive attitudes and emotions, maximal effort, and persistence when faced with barriers." (1) Extrinsic motivation arises, on the other hand, from external factors: "people who are extrinsically motivated report being physically active because of some external factor and are likely to experience feelings of tension, guilt, or pressure related to their participation." (1) It is important to understand that there are no simple guidelines for separating the two categories. In reality, very few people are completely extrinsically or completely intrinsically motivated, and most people fall on a spectrum somewhere between the two. In The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger recounts that there were days when even he didn't want to work out, but that he was motivated to continue working out by the presence of his workout buddies, who reminded him of his goals and what he was trying to achieve. Likewise, only the newest of sedentary exercisers will likely report deriving no enjoyment from exercise, complaining about it and quitting as quickly as possible. I've had clients who came to me hating exercise and within a few short weeks were already displaying pride at being able to push out more reps or hit a higher weight than they had just a short time previous.
The problem as I see it is that far too often, people rely on extrinsic motivation to guide them, rather than attempting to properly build intrinsic motivation. Typically, we would expect that people begin their exercise regimen focusing solely on outside factors (I want to work out to look better, to be healthier, to improve my body's functionality within my lifestyle, to win a competition, to have time to hang out with a friend, to be cooler, etc.), and then begin to transition into motivation based on intrinsic factors, which is to say that they come to enjoy it the more that they participate in it, the more that they have positive experiences of exercise. Unfortunately, I feel that in the modern sphere, exercise is both hated and feared by general populations. There is a certain fetishization of the attractive, lean body, but at the same time everyone portrays exercise as grueling, painful, unwanted, unpleasant. This combination of repulsion and attraction to exercise is responsible for sending most people mixed signals that result in lots of confusion and ultimately a lot of missed opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation. In short, society is ideologically polarized towards fitness, and as a result it becomes difficult for the traditional, middle-of-the-road exerciser.
In the expected traditional model, the new exerciser has some misgivings about fitness, but these are made up for by extrinsic factors until intrinsic motivation can develop. How it more often happens as I see it, however, is that people enter the field with a certain amount of antipathy toward exercise already built up. As a result, they have to use large amounts of extrinsic motivation to power through this distaste, and heavy reliance on extrinsic motivation can inhibit or even prevent the growth of intrinsic motivation by providing the exerciser with unhealthy exercise habits. Consider the following:
We hop in our cars and drive (oftentimes a good few miles out of our way) to the gym... where we hop the treadmill and run for an hour. We have exercise memes that focus on how difficult leg day is, or we post Youtube videos making fun of people doing exercises with bad form. We focus on supplements because they allow us to buy exercise in a bottle, even if that supplement is about a tenth (not a very scientific guesstimation here, but bear with me) as useful as actually going into the gym. We endlessly pick apart programs rather than following them. We believe that the only way to get a good workout is to push ourselves to complete failure so that we wake up in the morning unable to reach our hands over our heads. We enter the gym with our headphones already in our ears so that we can completely avoid being forced to have a human conversation every now and then. (Admittedly, not everyone is hyper-socialized, and it's perfectly legitimate not to view the gym as a social gathering, I'm just trying to make the point that even very social people are often very antisocial in gym settings.) We compare ourselves endlessly to fitness models who have been working out for years as if we can look like them in a matter of days. In general, we always fall for the "next big thing" that promises us a six pack in thirty days, or massive weight loss with just fifteen minutes of exercise a day.
In short, we have a severely skewed vision of exercise, and many of the extrinsic factors we use to drive ourselves into the gym are themselves deprecatory towards exercise. We laugh at leg day memes because we actually hate leg day. We like fifteen minute workouts because we can't stand to work out for longer. We enter the gym with our headphones on because we don't want to have a good time in the gym, don't want to meet people or make friends who might convince us to stay. This is why a lot of the time, our efforts to build intrinsic motivation fail: because even our extrinsic motivation is based on the idea of exercise being painful and unwanted. Exercise is viewed as some sort of unspeakable chore (or conversely, one we speak too much about), and we never allow it the possibility to grow into an actually pleasurable activity.
It goes without saying that most successful athletes and exercisers are people who have built a high amount of intrinsic motivation within themselves. Learning to love exercise means that you never have to worry about forcing yourself to go into the gym, and you're far more likely to adhere to a program since you actually enjoy it. To this end, it's necessary to stop thinking about motivation in the way that we often find it to be in the prevailing gym culture (motivational videos, Zyzz quotes, endless pictures of guys way more ripped than us) and start thinking about it more as a series of organic moments in learning to love an activity.
Find the closest gym that suits your needs, or put together a home gym in your garage or basement. This way, you won't have to go very far, which means you're more likely to go. Surround yourself with friends at a similar exercise level to yours, and work out with them, or make friends at your gym. This way, you'll enjoy going if only to have time to talk with your friends. Find a program that allows you to see the results you want in 1-1.5 hours, 4-5 days a week. Much shorter, and you won't find results. Much longer, and you're going to be mentally exhausted from going to the gym for too long. Learn to replace negative extrinsic motivation (deprecatory jokes or banter) with positive extrinsic motivation (good goal-setting, rewards for achieving these goals). Pick up a diet that allows you to be flexible about what you eat and doesn't starve you. You don't have to turn into the fittest man or woman in the world, but if you learn to fit exercise into your schedule, even if only for a couple days a week, it's going to be massively beneficial for your health. Don't push yourself too hard, but don't go easy on yourself. Take a more reserved approach to motivation, and you'll probably find yourself actually enjoying it more. The impulse to see the world as detestable is what makes the world detestable, and vice versa, and particularly when it comes to exercise.
Real motivation ultimately comes from routine. Most people are concerned with unsustainable and chaotic impulses which drive them to exercise, but true proficiency is made from sustainable order. Develop this order in your life and motivation, in a certain sense, becomes irrelevant. Once adherence to the routine becomes the primary source of effort, motivation becomes secondary and the pattern kicks in. So stop paying attention to all the other reasons that people are telling you to workout, and listen to yourself. Listen to what your own body is telling you, and exercise as much as it will let you. Only once you find the right balance will you be able to see your results.
(1) Bryant, Cedric X., and Daniel J. Green. ACE Personal Trainer Manual : The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise, 2010. Print.